Then & Now: A Brief Video History of Awful Airline Ads

A look back at air travel commercials over the past fifty years reveals a remarkable transformation in the imagery and sales pitches used by the airlines.

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Here, we explore the evolution of commercial airline marketing and advertisement, from the cautious, black-and-white “Is it really safe to fly?” spots of the 1960’s to Virgin Atlantic’s awkwardly hilarious man-on-man-tourist-love commercials of today.

Vintage Airline Stewardesses
Vintage Airline Stewardesses © vmperella


In the salad days of commercial air travel, it’s clear that advertisers still struggled to convince the world that air travel was safe.

Hence the forced juxtaposition in this spot of a quintessential, mid-century housewife delightfully gardening with her son and the hard cut to a shot of the cockpit to prove the solid experience of the captain of her upcoming flight.

Then of course there’s the inevitable, often blatant, sexism that embodied much of the 1960’s:

I’m surprised, as a woman, that she was able to roll out of bed and find her way to the airport. Good thing she had those sparkly salt and pepper shakers to keep her occupied. I mean, who wants to listen to her babble incessantly for three hours about her favorite recipes. Am I right? It’s madness!


Then came the hard sell, embodied in this 1972 commercial wherein a stern, buttoned-up Wall Street type makes sure you know what you’re missing if you’re not flying TWA.

“Does your airline give you seats like this? Well it should … bitch.”


It’s no surprise that the era of cheesy over-acting, and squishy, feel-good, family friendly sitcoms such as Full House and Mr. Belvedere brought us this painfully saccharin commercial:

… or this spot with the cleverest marketing slogan in commercial aviation history:

“American Airlines, the On-Time Machine, does it on time, more times.”

It’s oddly reminiscent of the Anchorman scene where David Koechner’s character says of his cologne: “80% of the time, it works … all the time.” Right.


Thirty years on and the airline industry started realizing that no one much gave a crap anymore about piloting experience or how on-time they were. Like all advertising of the last decade, there was a huge shift towards depicting luxury and creating a solid brand image for consumers.

In this – one of the original Qantas ads – we see a slideshow of exotic, far-flung destinations put to the ethereal chant of the Australian Girls and Boys National Choir.

The formula was brilliantly simple: you like luxurious, exotic vacations and singing children? Fly Qantas.


Which brings us to the new millennium – an era where funny rules. Viral videos on YouTube are all the rage and the days of hard sell commercials are long gone.

And nobody does it better than Virgin Atlantic with their notoriously irreverent (and sometimes banned) ad spots, such as this one:


If you have insomnia or need to kill eleven minutes of your life, check out this vintage 1947 classroom film on air transportation.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Timmy?”

“I want to be a pilot!”

Of course you do, Timmy. Of course you do.

Founding Editor
  1. Great ads – the Virgin one is hilarious isn’t it?

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there was a really gross one on YouTube – I think it was Silverjet. It shows two women coming out of the loos together looking v suspect.

  2. I could think of so many other examples of “bad” airline ads. You seemed to be missing out on the whole array of cheesiness from budget airlines…

  3. I love the one for Korea Airlines playing Robbie Williams’ song in the background (I think it’s called Holiday in Mandalay). It starts “Save me from drowning in the sea.”

    Yes, Korea Air, please save us from drowning, crashing, or facing any other untimely end while aboard your aircraft. Now hand me my pills and a G&T so I can prepare for the flight.

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